KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Two major opposition parties in Malaysia forged a political alliance Saturday to consolidate support from the country's majority ethnic Malay Muslims, a move that could threaten Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government in the next general election.
Mahathir's alliance scored a surprise win in May 2018 general elections, unseating the National Front coalition that had led since the country's independence from Britain in 1957. But many Malay Muslims, who account for 60 percent of the country's 32 million people, still support the parties what is now the opposition.
The linchpin of the National Front, the United Malays National Organization, and its former enemy, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, said inked a pact Saturday that they say will unite Malay Muslims. The two parties secured 75% of Malay votes in the last election but that didn't translate into a majority of seats in part because they fielded competing candidates for many seats and spit the Malay vote.
The two parties have now agreed not to contest against each other, paving the way for straight fights with Mahathir's Hope Alliance in the next election, which is due by 2023.
"Now that they are formally allied and switched to a more effective election strategy of pooling together electioneering resources and putting forward the most winnable candidates from either party, they pose a substantially clear and present electoral threat" to the Hope Alliance, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
The defeat of the UMNO-led National Front was attributed to anger over a massive corruption scandal involving former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Najib is currently on trial after being charged with multiple counts of corruption linked to the multibillion-dollar looting of the 1MDB state investment fund.
UMNO's President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, a former deputy premier who took over the party after Najib stepped down, has also been charged in a separate graft case.
Zahid said in a speech Saturday that the new union will uphold Islam but that it will not cause racial enmity as he promised to respect the rights of other races. Malaysia has large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
"We are confident that this national cooperation pact, it will inspire us further in our joint cause," he told thousands of supporters.
PAS currently controls the legislatures two of Malaysia's 13 states, while UMNO controls none.
Bridget Welsh, an Asian expert at the John Cabot university in Rome, said the "alliance of convenience has a good chance of winning power based on previous voting patterns."
Many Malays fear their privileges under decades-old affirmation action policies could be threatened under Mahathir's government, while non-Malays feel the government is not being inclusive enough, she said. She said PAS and UMNO are trying to capitalize politics of division.